You may have seen a lot of David Lean comparisons in the reviews for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not difficult to join the dots. The scope is epic. It all happens in a desert. Tremendous emphasis on visuals, with extraordinary use of screen space as well as 3D technology. Had Lean made a 3D post-apocalyptic action-epic, it might have been something like this: Lawrence of Australia. But Miller also channels a Lean-like state of grace that’s practically impossible to find on screen these days, at least outside a Spielberg movie. I’m talking about the mirage-like vision of women hosing each other in the desert. I’m talking about the chalk-white children. I’m talking about the flare that dies, its diminishing light signalling the end of a scene, much like how Lawrence famously blew out a match and indicated it was time we headed to the desert. CUT TO: sunrise over the sand.
This is not a review, so I’m not going to explain everything. But even if you watched Mad Max: Fury Road, you’d probably miss quite a bit, for the film keeps tossing things at you at the speed at which its vehicles move. When you’re travelling at 200 kmph, you miss what’s on a milestone. People Eater. Green Place. Blood Bag. Gas Town. The version I watched had subtitles, but I wished it hadn’t. Subtitles have a way of making you read, and this is not a movie that you want to read. This is a movie you want to read the Wiki synopsis of (so you know how it all fits) and then just see. See the outstanding action choreography. See how the camerawork helps, now zooming in to catch a tumour on a shoulder, now soaring to the skies and observing with godlike detachment. See how war is hell, but also so beautiful.
Because we live in a culture where anything serious is privileged over anything that’s entertaining, Mad Max: Fury Road won’t win any of the major Oscars. But it should. For a screenplay that speaks not to the head or even the heart but to the pulse and that strange part of the subconscious that conjures up fevered dreamscapes at 3 am. For Miller’s direction – he’s seventy, and he bays louder than Michael Bay. For the makeup and costuming – a bejewelled nosecap, a keffiyeh made of bullets. For the sadness in Charlize Theron’s eyes, as her ravaged performance reduces Max (Tom Hardy) to a supporting character. For the production design. For whatever the category is that recognises what it means to surprise the audience, put a smile on their face. You think a formerly villain-like character has softened. You think that’s a look of becalmed wonder as he observes a scurrying beetle. You think he’s letting it run over his finger because he’s going to let it out. You don’t think the finger is going straight to the mouth. It is the desert, after all. Food’s scarce.
As scarce as original thought and hard work is in big-budget films these days. Most times, what we see on screen is industry, the mechanical things people do – the set-building, the computer-crunching. But that’s not the same as hard work, which implies that everyone has climbed out of the summer-blockbuster box and worked hard towards a singular vision. That’s why Mad Max: Fury Road is like no other summer blockbuster. It isn’t even like any other movie around. I’ve never seen such a wildly imaginative mix of ideas and visuals – a matriarchal clan and metallic silver paint; seeds in a bag and a pregnant belly used as a shield; a comic-relief guitarist and a solitary tree in a desert; blindness and blood transfusion; collapsing rocks and a self-effacing protagonist. Every frame of this film has behind it this thought: How can we make this better, new, different, unique? Go watch this movie, again and again, for we may sooner see the apocalypse than an action movie that’s this artisanal.
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